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Prep stars Massa, Whitford on journey together

Jason Katz

12/15/2011
Jason Katz, Special to InterMat
jason.katz@mlb.com

It's a study in contrasts and personalities. Ben Whitford is 145 pounds of constant energy and movement. Taylor Massa, around 30 pounds heavier, is always so calm and composed that you wonder if his pulse ever changes during a big match.

"I'm pretty good at masking my emotions, and Ben is a lot more hyper and outwardly confident," says Massa.

Massa isn't used to being scored upon, especially by someone smaller than him, and Whitford has just taken him down. Not surprisingly, Massa is not happy.

Ben Whitford was a Junior National double champion this past summer in Fargo (Photo/Dave Jedlicka, jedicheetah.com)
Whitford has supreme belief in his own skills.

"I'm really confident, and sometimes people might mistake that for cockiness, but I don't wrestle as well unless I think I'm going to dominate," he says, but he knows he's about to pay the physical toll of angering the No. 1 recruit in the country.

All he needs to do is look at the narrowing of Massa's eyes, and the realization that the next "go" won't be very pleasant is obvious. And so the laid back Massa pounds the more emotional Whitford into the mat, works him over a bit, and that's that.

"He can take me down once in a while, it's good. It keeps me on my toes," says Massa, cracking a smile. "Little guy is quick enough to do it now and then, but it's fun to punish him after he gets that takedown."

So goes life for the extremely close friends within the walls of the Massa wrestling room in St. Johns, Michigan. It is here that two of the best high school wrestlers in the country have done a large amount of their training.

Taylor Massa, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, won the Super 32 Challenge title in October (Photo/Rob Preston)
Massa, InterMatWrestle's No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2012, is undefeated in his prep career. Whitford is the No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 and has only one blemish on his prep record. They are two of the most decorated high school wrestlers nationally, with nine Fargo titles, five state championships, a Walsh Ironman title, and a Junior World Team spot between them, among their many accolades. And now, for the first time, they will wrestle together on the same high school team. Their excitement is obvious, perhaps more so because it could have easily never happened.

It all started nearly a decade ago. Massa and Whitford met when Whitford's father, Pat, brought him the 40 minutes from Holt, Mich., to St. Johns, to train with Taylor's father Rodger.

Rodger Massa is a name that has been synonymous with Michigan wrestling over the past decade, as many Michigan kids seeking out the toughest practices will visit what is now simply referred to as "The Room." The two fathers bonded immediately over their similar styles.

"There's not a lot of people that have the same philosophy and mindset we have, so Pat and I clicked," says Rodger Massa. "We really preach doing things the right way above winning and losing, and believe if you do that, good things will happen. We wanted our practices real intense, and sometimes when we held them in the school we couldn't do that, so we decided to build The Room about seven years ago."

L-R: Rodger Massa, Ben Whitford, Pat Whitford, Taylor Massa
Rodger and Pat began running practices together, and the rest, as they say, is history. Taylor and Ben became close friends because of their similar mindsets regarding wrestling. They wrestled together at national tournaments, where their fathers would be in their respective corners, and they trained together constantly. With Massa being a year older, he served as something of a role model and big brother figure for Whitford.

"When we were younger, I didn't hang out as much with Taylor, but he was the guy I looked at a lot of the time as far as what I wanted to be like," says Whitford.

Perhaps the turning point in the friendship of the two young wrestlers came at a difficult moment. Whitford was going into his ninth grade year in St. Johns, and was geared up to join Massa, who had won his first state title as a freshman.

But that would never come to fruition, as a job opportunity for Pat necessitated the Whitfords move to Illinois. Ben was understanding of the change, knowing he would be getting a good education and joining an up and coming program at Marmion Academy. But at his grandmother's lake house right before he left Michigan, he finally realized what he was going to miss most.

"Before we moved, I wasn't very emotional about leaving," says Whitford. "But then we said our goodbyes, and when it came to Tay, I got really emotional. We have a bond that's hard to explain, so it was tough."

The irony is that while the two were close friends, this moment made them realize they were even closer than they thought.

The news hit the usually even-keeled Massa hard as well.

"Ben and I have a special connection," says Massa. "It was really hard for me when Ben left because I felt like I was losing a friend, a brother, and a workout partner. When you're around someone that much, they become like part of you."

But so goes life, and the friends spent the next two years dominating high school wrestling in different states. The two kept in touch, and got to see each other at big tournaments and over the summer. If anyone wondered whether the bond had been weakened at all because of the distance, Pat Whitford tells a story which answers that clearly.

"Ben went to Junior Duals with Team Illinois and they were wrestling the Michigan guys," says Pat Whitford. "Taylor got taken to his back by a real good Illinois kid, and the whole Illinois bench jumped up, because the best kid in the country just got taken down ... everyone except for Ben, who just sat in his chair, not knowing how to react. You could tell from the look on his face how hard it was for him and where his loyalty was."

Meanwhile, Massa held out hope that the two friends would be reunited at some point, but that hope was waning earlier this year after he finished up his junior season with a third state title. And so, when he got the news that the Whitfords would be returning to St. Johns in May, his response was atypical for the laid back grappler.

"When I first heard he was coming back I just got fired up," says Massa. "I just thought 'Wow.' That was the vision I always saw going into high school me and him on a team with all of our great partners around us, building up our program and taking it to the next level. We definitely have a shot to be the best team in the country and we couldn't do it without Whitford by any means."

In the seven months since Whitford's return, their friendship has only strengthened. Whereas this relationship was once Massa as the big brother and Whitford as the little brother, the dynamic has changed.

"Since he's been back, I see him more as a best friend," says Massa. "I feel like there's a huge transformation between eighth grade and junior year in terms of maturing and that definitely happened with Ben. It's obvious he's matured a ton since he's been gone and it's another thing that's helped us get closer. I think we both started learning how to self motivate once we got into high school. We have so much in common that we understand each other and have a better connection than most people."

For Whitford, it is having someone who he truly trusts at his side that makes it special, and it has helped him grow as a person and leader.

Ben Whitford (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
"He understands my situation as well as anyone," says Whitford. "He takes care of me and doesn't think about it ... He just does it. That's the kind of person I've realized I need to be around more because of how rare it is. That's why he's a role model. He's trying to help us achieve our goals as he achieves his. I've learned a lot from him, and so now I try and work with some of the other guys in the room to try and help them like Taylor's helped me."

It's a credit to both young men that their hypercompetitive nature does not impact their friendship, but in fact helps their development as wrestlers and people.

"We both have such high goals for ourselves that having someone with the same goals and understanding for how to achieve them is just going to push you," says Massa. "It's good to have someone that can slap you in the face to get you going if you're not working as hard as you need to. But we also love hanging out off the mat and realize that there's more to life than wrestling."

According to Whitford, whether it is on a micro level -- "I'm always trying to push myself higher than his limits, and that pushes him back, that's why we scrap and go at it sometimes" -- or a macro level -- "Just to see him make the Junior World team pushes me to want to get to that point" -- the motivation to stay on the same level with Massa is obvious.

Massa relishes the competition, and waxes poetic when asked what a great training partner and friend means to him.

"You can shoot hoops all day by yourself and get amazing at that," says Massa. "You can throw a ball and become extremely accurate. With wrestling, you can't become good by yourself. You need a good partner. A good partner isn't just a good wrestler, but someone who understands you and knows you and your emotions and what they have to do to help you get through the practice that day. Because you can't have your best practice every day of your life, it just won't happen. So you need to have your partners there that can push you through on those tough days. And you put a little bit of yourself into the other person every practice, and it's how I think wrestlers become so close. You have to trust and believe in the other person if you're going to become great, and that's one thing Ben has helped me with for sure."

Nothing illustrates how close they are more than the first big national tournament the two went to together after the Whitfords moved back to Michigan, Super 32 Challenge, at the end of October.

"I was really pumped for that tournament, our first time being back together," recalls Whitford. "I was so excited to watch him wrestle and for me, having him there in my corner made me work that much harder."

Taylor Massa (Photo/Rob Preston)
Their bond was never more apparent, as the two helped coach one another with a passion normally reserved for family.

"The only thing better than winning is having your teammates and best friends win too," says Massa. "You win, and 'good for you' and you feel good, but when you can have other people you care about winning, it makes it that much better. When I'm watching Ben wrestle at Super 32 and coaching him in his corner, you feel like part of you is out there because of all the training we've done together and how hard we've worked."

They each breezed their way to a title at a tournament where dominance is a rarity. Whitford rolled through the tough 138-pound class with five pins, a technical fall, and a major decision in the finals. Massa was dominated in similar fashion at 170 pounds, winning a major decision in the finals as well, after four pins and a 12-5 decision earlier in the tournament.

This set up a great season ahead for the St. Johns high school team, just reaffirming how alike their mentalities are.

"The desire to be the best, I think about it all the time," notes Whitford. "We want to wrestle the best kids. Our mindsets are the same ... We don't care about rankings, we just want to find the other kids around the country who are tough, and we want to be dominant every match, no matter who we wrestle. It brings us closer as friends and training partners because we know the hard work we've put in and the sacrifices we've made to get to this point."

A lot of stories would end here. Friends and teammates gearing up for a national title run, while appreciating everything they have been through. But for these two friends, the journey is just beginning.

Ben Whitford and Taylor Massa will be teammates at Michigan
Instead of this being their final season together, the two will eventually be reunited, as Whitford has given his verbal commitment to the University of Michigan, where he will join the already-signed Massa in Ann Arbor. It was a perfect fit for so many reasons.

"I've been a big fan of Michigan since I've been a little kid," says Whitford. "When they added the new assistants, that was huge for me because I learned so much from Coach Bormet in Illinois and Coach Pritzlaff is awesome as well. What Coach McFarland and the assistants are building with the program and Regional Training Center is great. Having the senior level guys around is going to help me a lot, I want to make the World Team and Olympics eventually."

All those reasons would be enough to entice any star wrestler, but his friendship and respect for Massa is among the most important reasons Whitford chose Michigan.

"Taylor committing was as big as anything," Whitford says. "He's a great role model for me and we've talked a lot about this being a good fit for both of us in college and I couldn't be happier that I get to be with him for the next 5 years."

When Massa hears the news, he can't conceal a huge grin.

"It's gonna be great," says Massa. "It's awesome that we're going to have the chance to be together for another few years. I never thought this far ahead -- it was exciting to just know we'd have a year together in high school, and now this. I'm just pumped."

For Whitford, this is a dream come true.

"Having the combination of a best friend and a brother is pretty awesome, and that's what he is," says Whitford. "And now I get to watch him wrestle and be with him for the next five years. It doesn't get any better than that."

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